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CLEMSON — The 2018 Clemson Tigers are the No. 1 team in the nation in ESPN’s “way-too-early rankings.”

“Clemson's chances received a major boost when a handful of underclassmen -- defensive linemen Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins and linebacker Kendall Joseph -- decided to return to school," ESPN.com wrote in lifting Clemson from No. 2. "Ferrell and Wilkins were considered probable first-round selections if they entered the NFL draft."

However, there may be little coincidence that a move to the top spot in the rankings also coincided with the announcement of Clemson’s 2018 schedule. After playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation each of the last two seasons, Clemson has it significantly easier in 2018 — at least upon initial review.

Beyond the “way-too-early rankings,” today we give you the “way-too-early schedule preview.”

This year’s schedule features a few anomalies from the last couple of seasons: No Thursday or Friday games, a week off before beginning the toughest stretch and no back-to-back road games.

In each of the last two seasons, the Tigers have been forced to play at least one opponent on the road on a short week. That is not the case this year. Also, the bye week falls in the middle of the schedule — which is always a plus for the coaching staff.

• Game 1: Furman -- The Tigers get their “warmup game” this year against the Paladins from nearby Greenville. Furman is Clemson’s oldest football rival, as the schools met in Clemson’s first football game in 1896. It will be the first meeting between the institutions since 2012.

This game has the potential to be incredibly interesting if the coaching staff lets the expected quarterback battle between incumbent Kelly Bryant, sophomore Hunter Johnson and true freshman Trevor Lawrence fester.

The Tigers will need to solidify the quarterback before making the trip to Texas in week two.

Prediction: Clemson 54, Furman 3

• Game 2: Texas A&M — This is the marquee game of the schedule, as the Tigers travel to College Station to face an Aggie team that will be under the leadership of an all-too-familiar foe — former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.

It will be Clemson’s first trip to Texas A&M since 2004 when the Aggies defeated the Tigers 27-6. Clemson won the last meeting 25-24 at Death Valley on a last-second field goal by Jad Dean.

The Aggies have struggled to find the consistency that they needed under former head coach Kevin Sumlin, and following their loss to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl, chose to look in another direction. The Clemson defense, as will be the case for almost every game this season, will prove to be too much for the Aggies.

Prediction: Clemson 35, Texas A&M 20

• Game 3: Georgia Southern — The Tigers return home for a final tune-up game before beginning the conference schedule on the road the following week.

This will provide the Tigers a “week off” to prepare for the chop blocks and cut blocks that are sure to be headed their way in Atlanta when facing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

Prediction: Clemson 56, Georgia Southern 9

• Game 4: Georgia Tech — If there is one coach the most upset over the fact that Wilkins, Bryant and Ferrell chose to return to Clemson for another year it would probably be Paul Johnson.

The 2018 season will mark the sixth straight year Clemson has had its first league game on the road. Clemson has won at Georgia Tech just once since 2003 and the victory took place in 2016 during Clemson’s national championship season.

But Clemson’s defense has been the kryptonite to the Yellow Jacket running attack, and this year will not be any different.

Prediction: Clemson 27, Georgia Tech 10

• Game 5: Syracuse — If there is one game the Tigers could have circled as a revenge game, it would be this one.

The Orange were the only team to defeat the Tigers in the regular season last year, taking down the No. 2 Tigers in New York on Friday, Oct. 13. This year, it will be the Tigers’ turn have some fun — as they get their revenge in a big way.

Prediction: Clemson 48, Syracuse 10

• Game 6: Wake Forest — The Tigers travel to Wake Forest to take on a much-improved Demon Deacon team that finished last season 8-5.

The Tigers have won 10 straight games, dating back to the 2011 season, in North Carolina — including the ACC championship games. And while the Demon Deacons are improved, the talent gap between the two programs is too great for the Deacons to have a chance.

Prediction: Clemson 30, Wake Forest 12

• Game 7: N.C. State — The Tigers and the Wolfpack have been involved in some of the biggest conference games over the last couple of seasons, including last year’s 38-31 victory in Raleigh.

The Tigers have won consecutive games by seven points or less — the only ACC opponent to be within a touchdown of the Tigers in a loss each of the last two seasons.

While the Wolfpack return quarterback Ryan Finley, some of their biggest playmakers on offense and defense have chosen to make the jump to the NFL. This year, there will be no controversy regarding laptops — the Tigers will be the better team.

Prediction: Clemson 30, N.C. State 13

• Game 8: Florida State — Clemson and Florida State meet in Tallahassee in what has become the biggest rivalry in the ACC. The schools that have won this game have gone on to win the last nine Atlantic Division championships. Clemson has won the last three meetings, including last season’s 31-14 victory, which clinched the division title.

However, this year will feature a new face opposite the Tigers, as the Seminoles will be led by Willie Taggert. After going 7-6 last season, the Seminoles will be out for revenge and to prove they are once again ready to challenge for the ACC crown.

Prediction: Clemson 31, Florida State 21

• Game 9: Louisville -- The Tigers have defeated Louisville all four years the Cardinals have been in the ACC, but three of the wins have been by a touchdown or less. However, this year the Bobby Pettrino-led Cardinals will be without Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

The Tigers handled the Cardinals last season at Louisville to the tune of a 47-21 victory, and this season could be just as bad for the Cardinals.

Prediction: Clemson 38, Louisville 13

• Game 10: Boston College — The Tigers will make a trip to Chestnut Hill in mid-November to face a Boston College team that finished the 2017 season 7-6.

The resurgent Eagles won three of their last four games — their only loss coming in heartbreaking fashion, 17-14, to No. 23 N.C. State. The Eagles also posted blowout wins over Florida State, Syracuse, Connecticut and a 45-42 victory at Louisville.

The Tigers have won seven straight in the series, and will make it eight straight in 2018.

Prediction: Clemson 35, Boston College 12

• Game 11: Duke — The Blue Devils return to the Tigers’ schedule for the first time since the 2012 season. This will be Duke’s first trip to Death Valley since 2008 when head coach Dabo Swinney was only an interim.

A lot has changed in 10 years, but one thing has not changed and will not change — their inability to win at Clemson. In fact, the Blue Devils have not won at Clemson since 1980.

Prediction: Clemson 42, Duke 17

• Game 12: South Carolina — The Tigers will look to build on their current four-game winning streak, as they play host to their in-state rivals.

Coming off a nine-win season in 2017, the Gamecocks will look to find the magic that brought them their last victory over the Tigers in 2013 — but they will have to wait, at least, another year. The Tigers finish off a perfect regular season and march into Charlotte for the ACC championship with five straight wins over their rival, and another berth in the College Football Playoff on the horizon.

Prediction: Clemson 38, South Carolina 17

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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